Where are you going, where have you been

1996- I spend two weeks in August at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp for the first time. All the cabins are grouped in “units” which are named fine-artsy things like Big Band, Bandwagon, etc. All the cabins have corresponding names. I am in the Villanelle unit, in the cabin known as “Oates.” Apparently all the cabins in our unit are named after women writers. I considered myself a fairly well-read 13-year-old and had never heard of this Oates person.

Later in 1996- I read the book Foxfire. I picked it up because a) I liked the name, and b) it was being made into a film. The book features charming topics like girl gangs, teenage aggression, hooking, and a particularly savory scene where a woman with mental retardation gets gang-banged in the woods. Am scarred for life.

1997- I finally catch the movie version of Foxfire on cable one day. It’s not even the same story.

2001- I read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” in English 100. Traumatized yet again.

2003- I read “Ghost Girls” in my creative writing workshop. Yep, traumatized. I also read “The Strand Used Books 1956” and for once, am not traumatized, but enchanted.

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2007- Joyce Carol Oates makes an appearance at the Borders on Broad Street in Philadelphia. She is frail-looking, slow-speaking and conservative in manner, not at all the kind of person one would expect to publish writing that has traumatized me all these years. She reads a bit from her new book, Gravedigger’s Daughter, and then answers some questions. Some choice gems:

“The Irish, they’re the ones who will break your heart.”

“When you write, you have to make the decision whether you want to include only a few details, like Hemingway, so your writing will move faster and have a more cinematic flow to it, or if you want to include a lot of details like Faulkner or Dickens or Joseph Conrad and really slow your reader down so they can get a sense of atmosphere and setting.”

“Sometimes when I write a novel, I get so caught up in it that I have to take a break from it and write a short story just to break up the intensity.”

(my favorite) “I teach at Princeton, and in the writing of my students, you really get a sense that they believe that history begins with them. I think my students are very aware that they live in a very politically debased time, yet they still retain such a sense of idealism, like they want to make the world a better place and that it doesn’t always have to be this way. Because of that, most of the energy in my writing tends to come from the younger characters.”

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